The Role of DEIS in RESET Project

Collaborative learning — where students participate in small-group activities and take responsibility for learning, whereas the teacher is more a facilitator than a "sage on the stage" [1] — promotes decentred cognitive activities that have been to foster different and desirable cognitive activities consisting of the ability to take on alternative points of view, elaborate upon conflicting information as a possible source of knowledge, elaborate upon divergent and creative solutions in problem solving, and go beyond surface information scrutiny [2]. For such reason, collaborative learning and its supporting technology have collected a growing interest [1]. Despite the accumulation of research on the effectiveness of collaboration activities, collaborative learning is not an inevitable consequence of allowing students to interact with one another [3]. Furthermore, fostering social interaction — the key element of collaboration [2] — implies dealing with issues that go beyond the sole technological point of view. 

A set of suggestions and recommendations for dealing with collaborative learning and social interaction can be found in [1,2,3], which also points out some still-open issues. In particular, as far as technological aspects are concerned, some useful remarks about existing distance and blended learning platforms can be drawn from [3,4]. In general, the most used and widespread platforms provide collaboration tools and components (like forum, chat, Wiki, workspace, etc.) that present two main limits: i) they are often juxtaposed and not truly integrated with one another, so collaborating people are exposed to a series of problems that come from the visually and functionally separate nature of such tools and components [4]; ii) they do not share a common conceptual framework, so as to make it difficult to exploit them altogether in a coherent and effective way [3]. This may result in a decrease in effectiveness of such tools from the standpoint of collaborative learning. As a consequence, the learning activity is often carried on by students mostly through individual and autonomous study, and the integration with forms of synchronous and asynchronous communication is, in most cases, conceived as an optional part of the learning process [3]. Moreover, due to the limits of these tools, students are often encouraged to exploit more traditional communication like face-to-face interaction or more familiar external tools like SMS, personal e-mail, Skype, MNS, telephone, and so on. Accordingly, the monitoring of student activities by teachers — for the sake of student-interaction analysis in order to evaluate students and give them feedbacks — becomes awkward [3]. In fact, a conceptual framework is needed that features an integrated set of tools for supporting collaborative learning, so as to improve learning process in students and foster student participation in learning activities.

In this context, Multi-Agent System (MAS) — a set of autonomous, pro-active and interacting computational entities called agents, situated in an environment where they interact typically producing a coherent global system behaviour — seems to be a suitable paradigm to engineer distance and blended learning systems for it promotes effective collaboration, overcoming the aforementioned limits. In literature, MAS paradigm has proven to be a suitable paradigm for dealing with the engineering of complex software systems like distance and blended learning systems, which are, by definition, interaction-oriented, distributed, dynamic, and open. In particular, we adopt the Agents & Artefacts (A&A) meta-model [5] as a suitable model for supporting the development of a MAS-based collaborative environment by focussing especially on the notion of artefact, which represents tools or objects (devices) that (human and intelligent) agents can either individually or collectively use to support their activities. Moreover, an artefact is designed to encapsulate and provide different kinds of functionalities or services. The A&A meta-model is based on Distributed Cognition and Activity Theory, which have a key role also in defining and modelling distance and blended learning systems based on collaborative learning [6]. This makes it clear that the A&A meta-model exhibits the potential to work as an effective and consistent conceptual framework for the modelling of systems supporting the collaborative activities of humans. Furthermore, through an appropriate design of artefacts, it is possible to re-frame existing collaboration tools as artefacts, then, by exploiting artefact properties, integrate such re-framed tools in an conceptually uniform collaborative environment. Moreover, artefact properties make it possible to monitor collaborative activities of human beings and give feedbacks to students and teachers based on social interaction and the specific learning status. This is an important aspect of distance and blended learning since learners, in absence of continuous feedback, feel alone and abandoned, so they are less stimulated to learn [7].

We want to show how to exploit the A&A meta-model, especially artefact abstraction, to engineer a set of integrated collaboration tools, coordinate and monitor human interactions, allow the construction and reuse of knowledge. Accordingly, we want to outline the implementation of a framework — based upon the TuCSoN coordination infrastructure [8] and the A&A ReSpecT coordination language [9,10] — that allows to integrate the chat service of the Moodle platform — a wide used platform in e-learning [3] — with the corresponding resource repository, so as to prove the efficiency of the combined use of these technologies for solving the mentioned issues.

References:

[1] P. Resta and T. Laferrière. Technology in support of collaborative learning. Educational Psychology Review, volume 19(1), pages 65-83. Springer, March 2007.
 [2] K. Kreijins, P.A. Kirschner, and W. Jochems. Identifying the pitfalls for social interaction in computer-supported collaborative learning environments: a review of the research. Computers in Human behavior, volume 19(3), pages 335-353. Elsevier Science, May 2003.
 [3] Promoting good practice. Lessons form a collection of european eLearning experiences. Report 1. Socrates-Minerva project ?Social networks and knowledge construction promotion in e-learning context?, 229692-CP-1-2006-1-IT MINERVA-M (http://projects.deis-ce.unibo.it/minerva/).
 [4] M. Mühlpfordt and G. Stahl. The integration of synchronous communication across dual interaction spaces. Proceedings of International Conference on Computer Supported Collaborative Learning, (CSCL 2007), New Brunswick, New Jersey, USA, July 2007.
 [5] A. Omicini, A. Ricci, and M. Viroli. Artifacts in the A&A meta-model for multi-agent systems. Autonomous Agents and Multi-Agent Systems, volume 17(3). Springer, 2008, in press.
 [6] B.R. Gifford and N.D. Enyedy. Activity centered design: towards a theoretical framework for CSCL. Proceedings of International Conference on Computer Supported Collaborative Learning, (CSCL 1999), Palo Alto, California, USA. December 1999, pages 189-196.
 [7] K. Schweizer, M. Pachter, and B. Weidenmann. A field study on distance education and communication: experiences of a virtual tutor. Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, volume 6(2). Susan Herring editor, January 2001.
 [8] A. Omicini and F. Zambonelli. Coordination for Internet Application Development. Autonomous Agents and Multi-Agent Systems, volume 2(3), pages 251-269. Springer, September 1999.
 [9] A. Omicini and E. Denti. Formal ReSpecT. Volume 48 of ENTS, pages 179-196. Elsevier Science, June 2001. Declarative Programming - Selected Papers from AGP 2000, La Habana, Cuba, 4-6 December 2000.
 [10] A. Omicini. Formal ReSpecT in the A&A perspective. Volume 175(2) of ENTS, pages 97-117. Elsevier Science, June 2007. 5th International Workshop on Foundations of Coordination Languages and Software Architectures (FOCLASA'06), CONCUR?06, Bonn, Germany, 31 August 2006.

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